Woman on Phone and LaptopThe phone rings and Carole answers, expecting the caller to be referring a new child to the early intervention program. She knows she’s correct when she hears the nervous voice of a new mother telling her that her doctor said to call. When the mother asks for information about the program, Carole replies, “We work with babies under age 3 who have delays and disabilities. We provide OT, PT, Speech Therapy, and education, and come out to the home so that you don’t have to bring your baby to a clinic.” Carole begins taking the mother’s contact information and tells her that a service coordinator will contact her soon.

So what’s wrong with this picture?? What could Carole do differently so that this new mother better understands early intervention from the very beginning?

How about that Description of EI?

Wow, what would you think if you were that parent? This program might sound like just the thing you were hoping for, or it might sound pretty overwhelming. Or, you might think “What? I still have no idea what this program is about…”

Carole was pretty straight forward, but was she accurate in her description of early intervention? No. Telling families that we “work with babies” is only half true, because we know that supporting the whole family is most effective. The person who answers the phone can help the parent understand, from the beginning, that EI providers will work closely with the family so that they learn ways to help the baby learn and develop. From that first contact, we want families to understand that EI focuses on supporting the learning of both the parent and the child.

Is Providing Therapy in Homes All We Do?

When you look at Carole’s description, it emphasizes a more child-focused, therapeutic model of services that sounds like “we do therapy with babies in your home.” That is not best practice in early intervention. Sure, this could seem like semantics, but why not start from the beginning and take the time to explain what intervention looks like with families, during daily routines and in a variety of settings. Provide them with examples so they know what to expect. This helps them decide if participating in EI is right for them.

First Contacts set the Stage!

I really believe that the first contact with a family or other referral source is critically important because it sets the stage for how the early intervention relationship works. Rather than diving right in and formally gathering contact information so early on, perhaps Carole could have just spent some time listening to the mother talk about the baby, about why she called or why she thinks the doctor recommended that she call. Even though Carole might not be the person who will continue to work with the family (or she might be, in some programs), the kindness and understanding she shows on that first contact makes an important first impression.

Now Let’s Rewind and Give Carole Another Chance…

The phone rings and Carole answers, hearing that nervous mother asking to refer her son, Jackson, to early intervention. Here are a few suggestions for what Carole can say to get the relationship off to a strong start:

Carole greets the mother, introduces herself, and tries to find out more about what the mother knows about EI:

Okay, I’m glad you called. So tell me what your pediatrician told you about early intervention?

Carole explains how EI works:

We work with families who have infants and toddlers (up to age 3) who have a developmental delay, disability or atypical development (Carole gives examples). Once a child qualifies for our program, a plan is written that includes the goals you’d like to see happen for your son and the services that you and Jackson will receive. Some of the services that children might receive include speech therapy, developmental services, or physical therapy, but which service you receive depends on your child’s strengths and needs and the goals written into the plan. Whichever service provider works with you and Jackson will collaborate with you to help you learn ways to play and interact with Jackson to help him learn to do the things you’d like for him to do. EI services are provided in places where Jackson spends time, so we can come out to your home, go to the park, visit with his child care provider, whatever works best for you and Jackson. Do you have any questions so far?

Carole begins to gather info about Jackson:

What were the doctor’s concerns about Jackson’s development? Are you also concerned? Tell me a little more about Jackson.

Okay, let me get your contact information…

This sounds quite different, doesn’t it?

What you say about early intervention makes a difference, especially when talking with new families or referral sources. Take some time to pay attention to your own words because there’s no place like that first contact to start building a strong early intervention relationship!

What are your thoughts about how Carole explained EI the second time versus the first time?

How do you explain EI to new families? What words do you use?

What strategies have you and your program used to help your referral sources understand how EI works?

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